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The Art of Mike Clevinger

The shaggy-haired starting pitcher has ruffled MLB’s feathers with his bright cleats, and while he’s famous for his footwear, he’s also become a vital piece of Cleveland’s rotation

Mike Clevinger Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“One thing that draws people to basketball is the fashion sense,” said Cleveland Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger. “That’s why they have the camera there when [players] come in every day. It’s that other aspect of seeing who they are and what they’re bringing to the fashion world. It’d pay huge dividends for the baseball community and baseball fans if we didn’t keep appealing to one demographic—we can appeal to all demographics, not just ones that were into baseball before.”

He’s probably right, but Clevinger, with his easy, goofy smile, cocker spaniel haircut, and left-arm tattoo sleeve, looks like the kind of person who’d say that. His social media presence is heavy on quotes from musicians like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and pictures of his family with Volkswagen vans in the background. Clevinger looks like the kind of person your mom would say is “a very nice boy” but also quietly disapprove of you dating. And as of two weeks ago, the 27-year-old right-hander is probably most famous for his cleats. Or perhaps more accurately, for getting chewed out by the league office over his cleats.

The offending shoes are rad as hell.

Colorful spikes are Clevinger’s thing, and every Cleveland pitcher needs a thing in order to stand out. He debuted in 2016, and since the start of that year the Indians staff has the joint best ERA-, lowest walk rate, and second-highest strikeout rate in baseball. It’s no accident that Cleveland also has the joint second-most wins in baseball since the start of the 2016 season, largely as a result of that superb pitching staff. Corey Kluber has two Cy Young Awards, Cody Allen is the closer with the big curveball, Carlos Carrasco was fourth in AL Cy Young voting last year, Trevor Bauer is the opinionated mad scientist, and Andrew Miller revolutionized the position of relief ace.

Clevinger’s Indians tenure is perhaps best summed up by his postseason record. A fixture on Cleveland’s October rosters, Clevinger has served entirely as a middle reliever/mop-up guy. He’s appeared in six playoff games, always with Cleveland trailing, and has never stayed in for more than two innings.

That will probably change if Cleveland returns to the postseason in 2018, because Clevinger is playing the best baseball of his career. His walk rate, long in the problematic 12 percent range, is now at a more manageable 7.7 percent, he’s allowing fewer line drives and less hard contact than ever before, and his ground ball–fly ball ratio is up to a career high 1.42. Once a fifth starter, Clevinger is pitching deeper into games, including his first career complete-game shutout earlier this season.

All told, Clevinger is in the top 20 out of 91 qualified pitchers in both ERA- and innings pitched. That’s not quite ace-level stuff, but it’s the makings of a solid no. 2 starter, something Cleveland sorely needs right now.

Fun hair, cleats, and tattoos aside, Clevinger started out as a pretty forgettable prospect. In 2011, the Angels drafted him in the fourth round out of Seminole Community College in Florida. The Jacksonville native’s origins aren’t so portentous that he had any sort of exciting reputation as an amateur, but neither are they so obscure that it’s notable that he made the big leagues at all. An athletic Floridian in the minor leagues is like a strand of hay in a haystack.

In August 2014, while pitching in High A, Clevinger was traded to the Indians for reliever Vinnie Pestano, the anonymous minor leaguer sent to balance out the anonymous middle reliever. (I thought I had a couple of pieces of Vinnie Pestano trivia, but it turns out I was thinking of Vin Mazzaro instead.)

Clevinger’s managed to outperform his modest origins thanks to two of his secondary pitches: the changeup and the slider.

Looking at Clevinger’s PITCHf/x numbers, the biggest change from 2017 to 2018—really, the only one worth mentioning—has been in his slider, which is breaking 3 inches more vertically and 3 inches more horizontally than it did in 2017. We think of the best sliders as Syndergaardian low-90s ping-pong shots, but Clevinger’s success of late is the result of his rejecting that conception of the pitch.

“I think I’ve just stopped trying to add more velocity and focused more on the shape,” Clevinger said. “Last year I was trying to keep it up in the mid-80s; that’s what I was chasing, and that wasn’t really the way to go about it. Actually it has better movement and better late break at 80 to 83, and I’ve even gotten it down to 78 sometimes.”

As a rookie in 2016, Clevinger’s slider averaged 84.8 miles per hour. In 2017, he cut that to 81.8, and his ERA dropped from 5.26 to 3.11. This year, the slider’s coming in another mile per hour slower, with more break, and Clevinger’s ERA is down to 2.87. The difference, he explained, isn’t in the grip or the release, but in the mechanics.

“It’s arm path stuff, just not letting your arm get out, staying compact,” Clevinger said. “My slider will start to the right, almost like a two-seamer, and come back. It’s like a reverse two-seamer.”

While the slider breaks toward Clevinger’s glove side (right to left if viewed from the center-field camera), the changeup, like a fastball, has arm-side movement. The difference in total horizontal break between Clevinger’s slider and changeup is almost 18 inches, more than the width of the plate.

“The changeup’s at 88 to 90, and my slider is 78 to 82, so the speed differential helps it play up a little bit,” he said. That gives Clevinger three distinct pitch speeds to play with: a mid-90s fastball, an upper-80s changeup, and a slider around 80 miles an hour. Opponents are slugging just .200 against Clevinger’s changeup this year—not batting .200, slugging .200—down from .413 last year.

While Clevinger considers the changeup his best pitch, it’s not the same changeup he brought with him to pro ball.

“I had a pitching coach in the Cal League, Matt Wise, back when I was with the Angels,” Clevinger said. “I had a pretty decent changeup and he kept griping at me, saying, ‘Look, the only reason I made the big leagues ever as a right who threw 86 was that I had a good changeup. Try this grip.’ And I wouldn’t for the longest time. One day in the bullpen I was playing with it and thought, ‘He’s on to something. This is moving better than my old changeup.’”

While telling this story, Clevinger reached out his hand to demonstrate the grip Wise taught him. It’s a split-change grip, which means Clevinger spreads his fingers wide and wraps them around the baseball like he’s palming Yorick’s skull, exerting most of the pressure on the ball between his index finger and middle finger.

As he was doing this, I caught a glimpse of his cleats.

Clevinger had worn these spikes on Friday, when he took a 4-1 loss to the Astros, his first loss in nine starts this year.

By his standards, they were conservative. Clevinger explained that MLB rules state that the team’s designated primary shoe color must cover at least 51 percent of the shoe, and as long as you stay within those bounds the league will usually leave you alone.

While the league was busting Clevinger for wearing shoes that looked like the Electric Mayhem’s tour bus, Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs was getting the same letter. In contrast to Clevinger’s flower child aesthetic, Zobrist is a relatively unremarkable on-field dresser, and his shoes were far from flashy. One offending pair was a mock set of PF Flyers, a nod to Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez of The Sandlot. The other was based off the plain black leather spikes worn by players in the 1950s and 1960s—a tribute to Stan Musial and Ernie Banks, Zobrist explained via Instagram. But they were black, and the Cubs’ designated shoe color is blue, and so Zobrist heard from the vice principal’s office anyway.

From a cultural perspective, baseball tends to value conformity. It has more history than any other major American team sport, and accordingly places great value on its history and traditions. From Babe Ruth ushering in the live-ball era to the sabermetrics revolution, the sport has traditionally been resistant to change. Moreover, Clevinger’s allusion to basketball players’ sartorial individualism is interesting, because the individual is less important in baseball than basketball. No ballplayer, not even one as great as Mike Trout or a two-way player like Shohei Ohtani, can impact the game to the extent that LeBron James can.

The hand-wringing about baseball’s lack of stars aside, pop culture responds to images. Only a few players are great enough to command widespread cultural notoriety for their on-field accomplishments alone. Everyone else is reduced to an image, even stars like Noah Syndergaard and Dallas Keuchel, who are known for their hair and beard, respectively. Clevinger believes that allowing players to express themselves gives fans more points of entry—nobody will like every expression of individuality, but almost everyone will like something.

For some reason, “individuality” conjures up a specific image, but if MLB’s dress code crackdown shows anything, it’s that left to their own devices, players will express a variety of interests and images. Clevinger’s hair and cleats might appeal to Instagram-savvy millennials, but Zobrist’s cleats are meant to honor his heroes from the game’s distant past. Willson Contreras’s Venezuelan-flag arm sleeve is an expression of patriotism and pride in his heritage. Each player, if he chooses, could promote something or someone he values, and given that window into players’ personalities, fans from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of interests could find someone to identify with. Would relaxing the league’s uniform policy return baseball to cultural primacy? Probably not, but it would give players more freedom of expression and probably draw in at least a few new fans as a result.

Instead, MLB is enforcing a rule for the sake of enforcing a rule, and Clevinger’s latest shoes are more traditional as a result. They’re mostly navy, but with an intricate white design and hot pink highlights, the latest work by artist Jonathan Hrusovsky.

“He’s a local Cleveland guy and he just hit me up one day, because I was getting cleats designed by other people here and there and he said, ‘Look, I can do this on a regular basis for you if you need somebody.’ I said OK, and he does great work, and now we’re doing it every other start,” Clevinger said.

Hrusovsky said he’s been making art his whole life, but started on shoes only in the past few years, beginning with a pair he decorated for his brother in Sharpie.

“I eventually found out that that wasn’t a good thing to do,” Hrusovsky said. “I wasn’t thinking that, oh, shoes get wet, so they did bleed.”

After some research, Hrusovsky started using acrylic paint designed to adhere to leather, and now has a steady stream of clients, for whom he designs and paints custom baseball and softball cleats, sneakers, and ice hockey skates. By the time he reached out to Clevinger for Players Weekend last August, Hrusovsky had already worked for Carrasco and Jason Kipnis.

Hrusovsky’s shoes obviously differ from client to client. He said Carrasco’s into art, so he got more elaborate designs. Kipnis’s spikes never saw game action after the second baseman suffered an injury last season, but they featured a saxophone design, based on “Thief” by Ookay, his walk-up song at the time. Clevinger’s personality makes his spikes a different kind of project.

“His mind is out there, he’s a very colorful guy, he’s free-spirited, and he really wants something to pop on his shoes,” Hrusovsky said. “I didn’t know that when I first came to him. He’s really different from a lot of the players out there.”

Hrusovsky came up with the Players Weekend shoes on his own, with Clevinger’s nickname, “Sunshine,” as the focus. But as the relationship’s developed, the process has changed. Most of the designs these days are inspired by Clevinger’s tattoos or his young daughters, Piper and Penelope. Hrusovsky used to show Clevinger preliminary sketches, but as the relationship’s evolved, and time pressure has increased as Hrusovsky’s business has grown, Clevinger now just brings up an idea and turns the artist loose.

“I know the way he is, I know his personality,” Hrusovsky said. “I know what he wants to have done on his cleats, so after that very first cleat, I’ve kind of just been designing. He gives me a few things here and there. The current cleat I’m working on, the one he’ll have for Thursday’s start, he’ll have a wolf and an owl, dedicated for his daughters. But he won’t actually see the design until I’m done with it, so he trusts me.”

Clevinger occasionally wears topical spikes—green for a preseason St. Patrick’s Day start, or the pink and purple spikes he wore for Mother’s Day two weekends ago.

Even though Clevinger wore his brightest, least dress-code-compliant shoes the day after he published MLB’s letter, the league cut Clevinger some slack on account of the holiday.

“They were cool about the Mother’s Day ones,” Clevinger said. “I wore them a day early but last year we celebrated the entire weekend, so I was going to celebrate for the whole weekend. But they respected that, they didn’t send me a fine or anything like that for wearing those bright pink cleats.”

And while Clevinger’s latest shoes prove that he’s still able to be himself without breaking the rules, the league is still putting a damper on what he’s wearing on the mound.

“The tie-dye ones I might have to show off at home.”

Clevinger doesn’t have the luxury of being the weird, fashionable swingman anymore. If he doesn’t deliver, Cleveland could be in big trouble. Bauer, Kluber, and Carrasco have been great, but the rotation’s depth is being tested nonetheless. Hard-throwing righty Danny Salazar is on the 60-day DL with shoulder inflammation and hasn’t thrown a pitch so far this year, while Josh Tomlin, the back-end starter of 2016 and 2017, has allowed an MLB-high 15 home runs in just 31 innings and has an ERA of 7.84.

And the bullpen, which saved the Indians over and over in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, has been a millstone in 2018. Allen’s been fine (139 ERA+, 9.9 K/9) if not exactly dominant, but Miller missed two weeks with a hamstring injury, came back, blew two saves in three appearances, and is now on the shelf again, this time with a back issue. In five years in Cleveland, Bryan Shaw averaged 76 appearances a year with an ERA+ of 136, leading the AL in appearances three times. He left for Colorado this offseason, and the remaining middle relievers are a smoking ruin of what they were in years past. Righties Dan Otero and Zach McAllister, both key middle-innings guys in 2016 and 2017, both have ERAs over 7.00. Lefty Tyler Olson, who didn’t allow a run in 20 innings last year, has allowed nine in just 13 1/3 innings this year.

The result is that Cleveland’s starters, particularly Clevinger, are working harder than ever this year. Until this season, Clevinger had never retired a batter in the eighth inning as a starter; he’s done that four times in nine starts this year. He’d never made it three full times through the order; he’s done that five times in 2018. In 2016 and 2017, Clevinger had thrown 100 pitches or more six times in 31 career starts; he’s thrown 100 pitches or more six times in nine starts in 2018, gone to 110 or more three times, and 115 or more twice in his past three outings.

As a result, Clevinger, who’s a good athlete for a pitcher, has become extra serious about his recovery. He rattled off a range of techniques, from simple stretching to dry needle therapy and suction cups, he’s using to stay loose. But being a workhorse hasn’t been a burden.

“That’s been the goal,” Clevinger said.

Depending on your definition, Clevinger has long been Cleveland’s most decorated pitcher. But between the hair, the tattoos, and the flashy shoes, one part of him that’s completely unadorned is his pitching arm. Finally, the one boring part is getting its due.